WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday defended former aide Rob Porter, wishing him well in his future endeavors without any mention of the two ex-wives who have accused Porter of physical and emotional abuse.
Trump's comments set off a firestorm at a time of national conversation about the mistreatment of women. And they came amid rampant White House finger-pointing about who knew what, and when, about the severity of the spousal abuse allegations.
Trump said Porter, who resigned when the abuse allegations became public this week, had “worked hard” at the White House and wished him well.
“It's a, obviously, tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career,” Trump said in his first comments on the allegations against the onetime rising West Wing star.
“He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent,” Trump added.
He gave no nod to the treatment of the women whose reports of abuse led to Porter's resignation but which he vehemently denies.
Trump's comments drew immediate condemnation from women's groups and Democrats. They came amid questions about how White House chief of staff John Kelly had handled the matter and whether he could maintain his job despite Trump's growing frustration.
Also Friday, a second White House staffer, speechwriter David Sorensen, resigned as a result of abuse allegations. Spokesman Raj Shah said the White House learned Thursday night about the allegations before being contacted by the media.
“We immediately confronted the staffer, he denied the allegations and he resigned today,” said Shah. Sorensen worked for the Council on Environmental Quality, which is part of the Executive Office of the President.
Kelly, meanwhile, tried to push his own timeline concerning Porter in brief comments to The Associated Press and several other news outlets, repeating a narrative he had presented Friday at a senior staff meeting that contradicts accounts provided by multiple White House officials.
Kelly said he found out only Tuesday night that the accusations against Porter “were true.”
“Forty minutes later, he was gone,” Kelly said.
But a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss personnel matters publicly, said White House counsel Don McGahn was apprised of at least some of the accusations about Porter at least four times, including as early as January 2017. In November, the official said, one of Porter's ex-girlfriends called McGahn to describe allegations of domestic abuse by the aide.
Kelly added that the decision was made before photos of one of Porter's ex-wives with a black eye were published.
Other White House officials have said it was the release of the photos Wednesday morning that sealed Porter's fate. The staff secretary resigned later Wednesday.
Kelly told reporters the only other indication he had that something could be wrong came in November, when he got an update on pending background investigations and learned “there was some things that needed to be looked into. And literally that was it.”
Trump has complained that Kelly did not bring the Porter allegations to him sooner, adding to his frustrations about the chief of staff's attempts to control him and Kelly's recent inflammatory comments about immigrants.
Trump has begun floating possible names for a future chief of staff in conversations with outside advisers, according to three people with knowledge of the conversations. Among the names being considered: Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Mark Meadows and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
But there was no sign that a move was imminent, according to the people with knowledge of the conversations. Trump is known to frequently poll his advisers about the performance of senior staff and is often reluctant to actually fire aides.